Being a newbie adventurer is hard. You have crappy gear, junk stats and the world around you is a terrifying vastness filled with horrifying enemies. Now imagine the same, but you’re around three inches tall, the rock-bottom of the food chain and your standard house cat is basically death incarnate. Yup, being a mouse is crazy hard, and that’s pretty much the focus of Luke Crane and David Petersen’s Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game Box Set, 2nd Ed.
But is it all bad? Well no actually, it’s not. You’ve got your trusty mouse companions, your sword and cloak, your mouse courage and a beautifully nuanced and elegant RPG system that rewards in-depth roleplaying while still keeping the action moving nicely along.
Based on the graphic novels of David Petersen, Mouseguard has you stepping into the paws of one of the warrior mice of the titular Mouse Guard. You are one of the chosen protectors of the Mouse Territories, basically, middle-ages Europe but furrier, and must do all you can to protect mouse-kind from threats such as the weather, other animals ( pretty much all of whom are bigger than you) and the machinations of other, more dastardly, mice.
If you’ve ever read any of the Redwall series of books as a child you’ll be pretty much up to speed. If you haven’t I strongly suggest you go out and get them, they are quite excellent. I would also recommend reading David Petersen’s graphic novels. They are also quite excellent and really give you a solid feel for the mouse territories.
The first thing we should probably mention is the sheer quality and amount of stuff you get in this box. Look at it all! (there’s a gallery of larger images at the end of the post) Custom dice, character sheets, GM screen, map, condition cards, armour cards, weapon cards, conflict cards, ALL THE CARDS!! And all of it is festooned with David Petersen’s beautiful artwork. I can honestly say that I have never seen an RPG come bundled with so much cool stuff. £41 (or $53 for you colonials) for the boxed set isn’t cheap, but boy do you get your monies worth!
Character generation is one of the high points of this game. Rather than trying to make sure your character has the right collection of stats to eventually grow into the God of Swords (don’t bother, you’re a mouse) Mouseguard focuses on things like who your parents are, who your mentor is, what your hobby is and who you have some petty, minor beef with (not “he’s my evil mortal enemy” more “oh god, I’d give all the money in my wallet to slap Gary from accounting”). In effect, you are writing a detailed biography of your character which has a real effect on how you play the game. Also, as you can see from the character sheet, there is even a little mouse for you to draw on your clothing/armour, which is a lovely touch.
You also pick yourself a goal which you want to achieve and a go-to reaction, which is something you do, instinctively, without thinking, which are great ways of driving the game. Unusually you also get to decide what level you occupy in the Mouseguard. You can be a more experienced mouse which changes how you play the game but does not make you any mechanically better.
Once you’ve got yourself a nice rounded-out mouse you’re ready to set out and this is where the game really starts to differ from other RPG’s, like D&D, because the game is split into two phases. The GM’s phase is where he gives the Mouseketeers a mission, which can be as simple as “deliver the mail” and the puts obstacles in the way of them completing that mission.
Your players then overcome those obstacles using the skills they acquired for themselves during the lives you detailed in your character creation process. Key to this is the players use of beliefs their personal code, ethical stance, or guiding principle, instincts gut reactions, ingrained training, or automatic behaviours of the character and traits – the personality quirks and special qualities of the character.
These traits can be used to befit the player or they can play them to disadvantage their character in moments where their basic beliefs or reactions would hinder them. This earns them “checks” on their character sheet which can be used in the player’s turn (more on that later) The players also have to choose a goal the mission. This can be as simple as “slap Gary from accounting” to something as nuanced as “prove myself to be a worthy member of the team”. This mechanic gives every player a reason to be there and gets people to engage with their character and the story.
Conflicts of any kind are resolved using a “successes and failures” mechanic, wherein a pool of dice are generated and, when rolled, each 4+ on the dice equals a success. This is then compared against the difficulty score of the conflict as set by the GM. Its mechanic should be pretty familiar to anyone who has played RPG’s like Burning Wheel or board games like Eldritch Horror, but it is how this conflict mechanic interacts with the rest of the game that really makes it shine. There are no hit points, instead, condition cards, such as Hungry, Angry or Sick are applied which influence how the character reacts in later interactions.
This is the core of what makes Mouseguard so great. Hit points, and the loss of them, rarely affects player behaviour further than “Can I haz healz plz?”. Mouseguard’s conditions encourage players to carry the consequences of their successes and failures with them and to parlay them into their future reactions. It encourages roleplay by creating synergy between combat and non-combat interactions, instead of sacrificing one to enhance the other.
Once the GM has finished setting out the story and the players have progressed through to a suitable milestone the game flips to the players turn. Depending on their actions during the game the players may have earned checks. These checks are earned by roleplaying a belief, trait or instinct in a non-advantageous manner. If your Guardmouse is quick to draw his sword at every opportunity, then there is a good chance it will get him into as much trouble as it gets him out of. Checks can be used to round out the game by, in addition to other things, allowing the players to effect changes in the game world. Examples of this could be:
- Creating or furthering a personal story arc.
- Taking actions to relieve the stress gained during the mission.
- Finally giving Gary that slap he so richly deserves.
- Making changes to their “Circle” or their contacts in the game.
The end of game phase gathers the players and GM round the table to dole out rewards for achieving goal and good roleplay during the mission, I really enjoyed this phase as, rather than me as the GM sitting on high and doling out rewards, I sat down with my friends and we discussed what the coolest parts of that night’s game were and rewarded players for sticking to their character. When the big snake turned up one of the players might have run and hidden in a hole, but if his character sheet said “coward” on it then that was a cool moment and they got their just reward.
Our short taster game presented the players with the simple task of finding out while the mail delivery had been delayed and, through a series of player decisions, ended up with them swinging from twig to twig in a small tree while fighting off murderous sparrows. I had a blast and actually didn’t need to prepare that much content, I mostly just went with the flow and let the player’s decision guide the shape of the adventure.
Joe: The best thing about Mouseguard is drawing your character’s equipment onto your character. I’m not joking, this is the best thing because it is a beautiful mixture of RP and mechanics. Without messing around with weights which most people can’t properly imagine you have a sensible level of encumbrance for your character, but all you’ve done is draw a picture. It’s very cool. My mouse has a longsword, he’s pretty cool.
This fine mixture of RP and mechanics runs through the rest of the game. The fight cards are really easy to use and prevent players talking about what to do for too long. The character creation takes a while and is more restrictive than some other systems but if you can accept that it delivers characters and a party with a clear dynamic and set of goals, It’s a great game.
Adam: My favorite part of Mouseguard was how my actions had consequences that lasted longer than just losing a few hit points. If I fluffed role or two I couldn’t just rest-up and then carry on as if nothing had happened. My character was tired and angry and he acted tired and angry. I felt like the whole game was geared towards encouraging me to RP and then rewarding me for doing it well. The fights were tense and I love how you some card options were synergistic, which rewards team play. 5 stars, would Mouseguard again!
I love D&D, I love what you can build with it. But if someone asked me which game came in the middle of the Venn diagram of best designed, enjoyable and value for money then the Mouse Guard 2nd Edition box set is the only real contender. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And frankly, if the idea of playing as a tiny mouse warrior that rides into battle on his tame beetle doesn’t appeal to you, then you are dead inside!